A $450 million project to upgrade a highly congested stretch of Interstate 5 in Portland faces new opposition and big unanswered questions.
The trucking industry says the two-mile section that runs through Portland’s Rose Quarter is the 41st worst bottleneck on the nation’s interstate system. Sideswipes and fender benders are common as drivers maneuver through a tangle of ramps between Interstate 405 to the north and Interstate 84 to the south.
The project’s main feature is additional lanes that make it easier for drivers to move on and off I-5. Officials hope the new lanes will result in fewer unexpected delays and slash the roughly 120 crashes that occur annually on that section of road.
“We fully admit that this is not going to eliminate congestion at the Rose Quarter,” said Travis Brouwer, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation. “But we do expect that it will make traffic much better.”
ODOT is also working with the City of Portland on a variety of non-freeway improvements in the Rose Quarter aimed at improving pedestrian, cycling and local street connections over I-5.
However, the project has become another chapter in Portland’s long history of highway wars. Expanding some auxiliary lanes isn’t as dramatic as the fight over the Mount Hood Freeway, which was killed in the 1970s after it threatened to take out some 1,500 homes and businesses in Southeast Portland.
Still, critics of the Rose Quarter changes have formed a group called "No More Freeway Expansions." They say it's long past time to stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on freeways running through the middle of cities.
“Once these are expanded, they will fill up with cars and then we’ll move on to whatever the next bottleneck is,” said Aaron Brown, a walking and cycling activist who is one of the leaders of the anti-expansion group. “At what point do we say enough is enough — we don’t think more lanes of freeways are solving our problem?"
Brown said the money should be spent on the more important city goals of ending traffic fatalities, encouraging alternatives to driving and fighting climate change. He said the vast majority of the crashes in this section of the freeway are minor and that other parts of the city are more dangerous for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
“We’re facing serious hazards trying to cross streets like 82nd Avenue, and ODOT’s response is, ‘Well, we don’t have the money,’” Brown said. Much of 82nd Avenue in East Portland is technically a highway under ODOT’s control.
The “No More” group is trying to upend last session’s big political deal on transportation.
What About Congestion Pricing?
After several years of controversy and negotiations, legislators earlier this year agreed to spend $1 billion upgrading three of Portland’s increasingly congested freeways, part of a broader statewide transportation spending plan. But they also said just pouring more asphalt wasn’t enough. They directed ODOT to come up with a plan for levying tolls aimed at prodding people to avoid rush hour traffic.
Groups ranging from the Oregon Environmental Council to the state trucking association bought into the deal.
“Congestion pricing alone won’t solve the problem,” said Jana Jarvis, the truckers’ president. “And adding a lane alone is not going to solve the problem. It’s going to take a combination of the two.”
Opponents say the state doesn’t need to combine tolls with the roadwork.
“That’s a lousy deal,” said Joe Cortright, a Portland economist who focuses on urban issues. “I think economists are unanimous that congestion pricing, if we’re really serious, is the way to go.”
Cortright likes to use the example of a Louisville freeway bridge that now attracts less traffic than it did before tolls were imposed — despite expanding the number of lanes. As a result, he has suggested that the state first toll the Rose Quarter area and then see if the freeway expansion work is even necessary.
Generally, the Federal Highway Administration only allows tolling on interstates when it’s tied to specific freeway projects. But there are some pilot programs the state might be able to apply for, and Cortright noted that the Trump administration has talked about easing the rules on the use of tolls.
Beyond that, however, ODOT’s Brouwer raised doubt about whether it makes sense to even try to impose tolls in the Rose Quarter.
“This is a challenging section of freeway from a lot of perspectives,” he said, “and it’s not clear that it is one that would lend itself real well to congestion pricing.”
Brouwer said tolls on that segment of I-5 could just drive more traffic — and congestion — to I-405 and local streets.
I Say, ‘No And Hell No'
The Rose Quarter project does have strong support among many Portland leaders, including Mayor Ted Wheeler. He particularly praises the many non-freeway improvements that ODOT has worked with the city on.
These include proposals to place two caps over the freeway, one at the intersection of North Vancouver and Northeast Hancock and the other at Northeast Broadway and Northeast Weidler. In addition, there would be a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over I-5 near the Moda Center and other local street improvements.
“If somebody came to me and said, ‘Ted, do you want to spend half a billion on a freeway expansion?’, I say, ‘No and hell no,'” the mayor said. “But that’s not what this is.”
Wheeler said he thinks those improvements would help revive a neighborhood that often feels lifeless when there’s no concert or Blazers game. And he said it would begin to restore some of the community links lost when the largely African-American neighborhood of Albina was ripped apart by the construction of I-5 decades ago.
In addition, several legislators have also made it clear to opponents that they can’t just take state money earmarked for the Rose Quarter project and sprinkle it around the city.
Wheeler asked about that when Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove and a member of the Legislature’s House-Senate transportation committee, discussed the issue at a city council meeting last month.
“You’re going to spend the money on this project,” she said firmly. “That’s what it’s dedicated to in the package.”
Mount Hood Freeway Memories
On this note, critics harken back to that 1970s fight against the Mount Hood freeway. Then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt helped push the federal government — which was set to pay most of the freeway’s cost — to instead let the region put the funds toward starting light rail and on a variety of local street improvements in the tri-county area.
But even beyond that issue, there’s yet another big question about funding. That’s because the money for the local improvements that Wheeler and other supporters are talking about is not all in place.
The state transportation bill included $30 million in annual funding that will be used to float bonds to help pay for the I-5 project. ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said it won’t cover everything.
“That’s not designed to pay for the entire cost of the project,” Hamilton said. “We will talk to the city about exactly how the costs will be allocated between the city and the state.”
Megan Channell, the ODOT manager for the Rose Quarter project, said the agency would be “looking at a variety of sources” at all levels of government to fund the entire project.
One possibility that has been discussed: a regional transportation bond that TriMet is looking at putting before voters in November of 2018.
Matthew Arnold, the director of urban design and planning at SERA Architects, said that the success of the project depends heavily on getting those local improvements. He worked as a volunteer on an advisory committee that helped design them.
“There may be moments when we have to make hard pushes to maintain some of those pieces,” he said, adding that if “all we end up with is a freeway project and a couple of four-foot sidewalks, we’ve lost.”
Questions And More Questions
The murkiness of the future of congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter area — and the questions about cost — suggest that the issues swirling around I-5 here won’t be settled anytime soon.
The Portland City Council is expected to decide this spring whether to keep the Rose Quarter project in its Central City Plan. At a minimum, taking it out of the plan would complicate the project’s future.
ODOT has just formed an advisory committee on “value pricing” — its phrase for tolling — and won’t submit a proposal to the federal government until late next year. Washington lawmakers are making it clear they’ll be closely watching the impact on Clark County commuters.
On top of that, detailed cost and traffic studies haven’t been done yet. And state money for construction won’t start flowing until 2022.
In front of the Rose Quarter project are the two other big freeway projects envisioned in the transportation bill. They would put auxiliary lanes on Highway 217 in Washington County and widen a stretch of I-205 from Oregon City to Stafford Road.
Arnold, the planner, said those projects appear more likely to encourage people to keep driving.
“For those advocates for whom freeway widening is a concern,” he said, “the 205 and the 217 projects might bear more scrutiny than this one.”
Members of the “No More Freeway Expansion” group say they also oppose those suburban projects. But so far, those proposals haven’t faced the same kind of critical scrutiny.